Topicals is one of the most interesting brands in the beauty industry today, if not the most, with only two products in its lineup. A Gen-Z brand through and through, Topicals — and its two 23-year-old founders, Olamide Olowe and Claudia Teng — walks the high tight rope of expectations for a new beauty company with grace, managing to hit all of the right marks on branding (a playful nod to the early web and Y2K), consumable education (what's the difference between skin purging and breakouts?), efficacious products that truly do work, and a self-awareness of its place in capitalistic society. There's nothing not to root for.
As two young women of color who grew up with visible skin conditions, the brand, launched in August 2020, is rooted in the desire to change the way we think about skin in the most general sense.
"I grew up with a ton of chronic skin conditions," Olowe, the brand's CEO, shared with NYLON over the phone. "I had acne, ingrown hairs, and I'm also a darker skinned black woman, so I grew up really navigating the dermatology healthcare space very differently than maybe most people did because of lack of research, I think, for skin of color. It's just now that people are really starting to take a look with a critical lens at dermatology as it relates to skin color." This early observation, paired with her love of YouTube's beauty space, set Olowe on the path to create Topicals alongside Teng, who serves as the brand's CPO.
Following in her parents footsteps, Olowe decided to take the medical route in college, which is where she realized exploring dermatology was an option. "I was really excited about pursuing both the scientific field, but also doing it in a way that was more fun and very much rooted in the fun of YouTube and all those things," she shared. These core focuses echo Olowe's deep understanding of consumer behavior and culture, especially in the early days of building out what Topicals could be amidst the boom of direct-to-consumer and social-centric beauty brands like Glossier.
"I love to understand people, I think empathy is such an underutilized skill, generally in relationships that are more romantic, but also platonically and business oriented," said Olowe. "So, I did a deep dive into people with chronic skin conditions and how they were feeling, how they were being treated by brands and realized that a lot of people who had chronic skin conditions had different pathways to purchase than [other] people. So they weren't going through an Instagram ad or their favorite influencer because people don't talk about not having perfect skin, right? At least at that time we didn't. But I found that [they were doing] more about research and places like WebMD and YourDoctor."
Topicals solution? Create a brand that commanded an authority on chronic skin conditions — backed by science — that managed to make their products and content feel fun and shareable. With both founders backed by the right educational and incubator experience, and Stanford's Chief Pediatric dermatologist on the brand's advisory board, the science element is inherently covered. But building a brand identity that not only moves the consumer to buy product, but want to actively and authentically engage is a bigger feat than most realize. To differentiate Topicals, Teng and Olowe created a strategy informed by their demo about how they'd talk about skin and the conditions that affect their consumers.
"A lot of people grew up being called ugly or being the outsiders because of their skin condition," said Olowe. "We knew that mental health was going to be a big component. I actually found the data that people with chronic skin conditions are actually two to six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety. So we realized from day one that we had to bake in, donating money. I think, if you're going to be selling a product to a community, I think that money should go back into that community. But we're excited about mental health, and what is mental health and skincare, what does that look like?"
From day one, Topicals donates one percent of its profits from each sale to mental health organizations and movements to help raise awareness of the connection between skin and mind. To date, the brand has donated over $10,000 to organizations like Therapy For Black Girls, Sad Girls Club, Fearless Femmes 100, and the JED Foundation.
Education is another huge portion of what makes the brand so captivating and builds up community trust. On its Instagram, between throwback photos from That's So Raven episodes, creamy detailed texture shots, and Destiny's Child on the red carpet in the early aughts, Topicals sprinkles in educational graphics that look just as cool, covering everything from how dark spots are formed to how eczema happens.
"I live and I tell everyone that as a Black woman, and generally, just being a person who is an outsider is really your superpower," said Olowe. "I think we've been made to feel, our experience makes us inept, but really it actually makes us very, very capable and very, honestly the best person to execute something. When I think about the way medical racism has existed, and I think about the education and how people are spoken to, going to the doctor is not usually a great experience for people, right? Finding out more information about your health has always been very, very hard for people, and especially people of color. So we wanted to make science and education accessible and really fun." And they have — all in the name of reimagining how we think about our skin.
With its recently launched Good Skin campaign — full of shots of skin with textured, flare ups, dryness, oiliness, hyperpigmentation, and acne on display — Topicals explored the core of its mission, with enough self awareness to recognize its position as a skincare brand that is telling its consumers their skin is good the way it is, with or without product.
"I think what people fail to realize is that people with chronic skin conditions don't treat their skin condition just because they want their skin to look like everyone else's, but that actually skin conditions can be extremely painful," says Olowe. "I had ingrown hairs growing up and it was extreme, I had boils too. I couldn't even put my arms down sometimes cause the boils would hurt so bad. And so really for us, we talk a lot about "funner" flare ups, which is this idea of less painful, less frequent flare ups — but reassuring people that perfect skin doesn't exist. So that's kind of the ethos of, of how we balance both, being a company and also being, hopefully a beacon for our community."
Currently, the brand's two products — Faded, a brightening, clearing gel for hyperpigmentation; and Like Butter, a thick, whipped mask for dry and sensitive skin —are the stars that have brought Topicals to this place of recognition and community engagement in less than a years time, and Olowe is quick to confirm any new products they bring into the fold will be just as groundbreaking. "The first thing is understanding that our product philosophy is that every product is a hero product, and we really like to design our products to be targeted solutions," she says.
"The unbundling of skincare happened over the last couple of years, people bought single ingredient products that were cheaper, but they ended up having to buy maybe, five or six single ingredient products to get the results they wanted," Olowe continues. "If each product is $10, they ended up spending $50 or $60, versus with Topicals Faded, you can get eight plus active ingredients in one formula for $36. So that's what you'll continue to see from us, we'll continue to innovate in the current categories we're in, but you'll see us get into other categories. I play in the spaces where the rest of the industry doesn't want to be, because they don't either feel like they have products to be able to serve this customer, or they just don't have the tone of voice. We'll continue to serve the underserved customer."